It’s been fifteen years since I started thinking seriously and speaking publicly about the literary merits of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I am still surprised at how much work there is to be done, how many mysteries and markers that have been neglected.
Take, as an obvious example, the matter of the author’s favorite books and writers. She says the three she enjoys reading most are Jane Austen, Colette, and Vladimir Nabokov. Go ahead and do a web search for ‘Rowling and Colette’ or ‘Rowling and Nabokov.’ You’ll find links to the various lists of Rowling’s ‘10 Most Loved Novels‘ and the like in which the same comments are re-rehearsed with different covers as click bait. But no discussion of Colette, Nabokov (or Roddy Doyle or Auberon Waugh, and, well, you get the idea) and their place in understanding what Rowling, the serious reader become writer, was after in the Hogwarts Saga.
I wrote a book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, on ‘the Great Books Inside the Adventures of the Boy Who Lived’ and it’s a grand tour of Western Canon through the lens of Rowling’s septology. It wasn’t, however, despite frequent quotations from The Presence to justify my choices of texts to discuss, J. K. Rowling’s Library, a book by Karin Westman, chair of the Kansas State English Department. Prof Westman announced the imminent publication of this guide at Nimbus 2003 in Orlando, Florida, and her CV says it is “forthcoming, 2017″ today (the University of Mississippi Press, her publisher, alas, does not list it among their titles soon to be in print).
This is a shame, if understandable given Prof Westman’s responsibilities, because, judging from what she has shared through the years about Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, and other Rowling favorites at conferences, no one is more qualified than she to write on this subject. While we wait for J. K. Rowling’s Library, though, let’s take a look at that “favorites” list again and see what we can figure out in anticipation of Prof Westman’s guidance.
The writer I’ve been reading, both his novels as well as books about his fascinating life, is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and I have a small confession to make. The experience of reading his Pale Fire and Lolita, considered among the best if not just the best American novels of the 20th Century (Lolita even makes the #15 slot on this Greatest Books Ever list) has turned my thinking about Rowling as novelist on its head, maybe even inside-out. If nothing else, I have a new “hidden key” to share.
First, though, let’s establish the Rowling-Nabokov link through her comments about the Man from St. Petersburg and the clear correspondences and probable hat-tips to his best known works in Harry Potter.
“There just isn’t enough time to discuss how a plot that could have been the most worthless pornography becomes, in Nabakov’s hands, a great and tragic love story, and I could exhaust my reservoir of superlatives trying to describe the quality of the writing.”
So she shared in 2000 in a BBC4 interview. To my knowledge, she hasn’t been asked about Nabokov since. Rowling has urged Daniel Radcliffe to read Lolita and he continues to read the novelist’s other work. But outside of a Nabokovian scholar in Germany who wrote Warum Nabokov Harry Potter Gemocht Hatte (‘Why Nabokov Would Have Liked Harry Potter’) in 2003, there has been little to no discussion in the ever growing critical literature about the relationship — I’m avoiding the word “influence” for reasons I’ll explain in a minute — between Rowling and the Russian raconteur.
Let me touch on a few of the pointers to Nabokov in Harry Potter as back up to the author’s own “words fail me” notes of admiration. Let’s start with names.
[I read Alfred Appel, Jr.,’s Annotated Lolita and I recommend it highly, especially if, like me, you are new to this writer. Appel studied with Nabokov at Cornell and had his full co-operation in preparing the sine qua non notes to this remarkably intertextual and intricately interwoven intratextual work. I know I would have been all but lost without Appel’s assistance.]
A Potter phile wandering through Lolita will be taken aback by the number of Hogwarts names in the text. The lead character, Lolita, for instance? Her real name is ‘Dolores,’ spelled the way Prof Umbridge does her first name. Then there are Lupin, Sybil, and Argus among references to Sirius, to nymphs of all ages as well as elves, and to ‘rufus’ and ‘rubius’ as shades of red that are significant enough in the narrative to warrant explanation in Appel’s notes.
Maybe you find that unconvincing. “There are lots of Arguses running around in popular novels. Could be a coincidence.” Take a look into Pale Fire. You’ll find a Luna, a Fleur de Fyler who clearly is part Veela, and, wait for it, a Grindelwod. I think we’ve stepped out of the realm of freak overlapping being a possibility. Rowling is cluing Nabokovians in that she is a member of their club the same way ‘Cedric Diggory’ made Narniacs giggle about Digory Kirk.
Appel writes, too, that “Double names, initials, and phonetic effects prevail throughout Lolita.” Do they ever!
Double names, initials, and phonetic effects prevail throughout Lolita, whether the twinning is literal (Humbert Humbert, Vanessa van Ness, Quilty’s Duk Duk Ranch, and H.H.’s alternate pseudonyms of “Otto Otto,” “Mesmer Mesmer,” and “Lambert Lambert”); or alliterative (Clare Quilty, Gaston Godin, Harold Haze, Bill Brown, and Clarence [Choate] Clark); or trickily alphabetical (John Ray, Jr.: J.R., Jr.). The double consonants of the almost infinite succession of humorously alliterative place names and points of interest H. H. visits are thus thematically consistent (Pierre Point, Hobby House, Hazy Hills, Kumfy Cabins, Raspberry Room, chestnut Court, and so forth). Numbers even adhere to the pattern; H.H. imagines Lolita’s unborn child “dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D.” (p. 279). The name of “Harold D. Doublename” represents a summary phrase (p. 184), but the annotator’s double initials are only a happy coincidence. p. 360
‘Alfred Appel,’ right? You can’t make this stuff up.
I wrote about this Nabokov connection pretty much as an aside in the ‘Names’ chapter of Harry Potter Smart Talk. The good news is that I think the reason I offered there for the alliteration and mirroring jibes with what goes on in Lolita.We’ll circle back to mirroring in a moment. In case you think I overstate Rowling’s use of alliterative names and doubled internal consonants, here’s a quick list of examples from her work:
Archibald Alderton, Arkie Alderton, Bathsheda Babbling, Bathilda Bagshot, Blodwyn Bludd, Barberus Bragge, Betty Braithwaite, Broderick Bode, Cho Chang, Colin Creevey, Dilys Derwent, Daedulus Diggle, (Elphias) “Dog breath” Doge, Dudley Dursley, Gellert Grindelwald, Filius Flitwick, Florean Fortescue, Gladys Gudgeon, Gregory Goyle, Luna Lovegood, Madames Malkin and March, Pansy Parkinson, Patma and Parvati Patil, Piers Polkiss, Stan Shunpike, Thaddeus Thurkell, Ted Tonks, Tilden Toots, William Weasley, Willy Widdershins, and Vindinctus Viridian.
The ‘Four Founders’ are an obviously alliterative group, too: Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Huffelpuff. And the Heads of Houses? Not too surprisingly, as they represent the Four Founders in some respect, we have Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, Filius Flitwick, and Pomona Sprout. They are joined on the faculty, at least for a short while, by Quirrius Quirrell and Mad-Eye Moody.
And the Ghosts and Ghouls on campus? The Fat Friar, the Bloody Baron, Nearly-headless Nick, Moaning Myrtle, and Peeves the Poltergeist.
That preponderant alliteration is simultaneously fun and fascinating but the repetition of sounds in Ms. Rowling’s character names isn’t limited to the initial consonants. Non-alliterative names, i.e., those not beginning with the same letter, often include reduplicated sounds, paired letters, or both.
As an example of reduplicated sounds, note the ‘c’s (and ‘k’) as well as the ‘a’s and ‘r’s in ‘Caratacus Burke.’ How about the ‘n’s and ‘o’s in ‘Antonin Dolohov’? The Hogwarts Headmaster’s name rolls off the tongue as pleasantly, even melodiously, as it does because of the repetition in alternation of the ‘b’s and ‘d’s in it: ‘Albus Dumbledore.’ This pairing and resonance is obviously a little less obvious (!) than alliteration, but the internal echoing of sounds in Ms. Rowling’s name choices has a similar, musical effect.
Roll these several names off your tongue and note the echoes inside them of repeated vowels and consonants: Justin Finch-Fletchley, Alecto Carrow, Fleur Delacour, Vernon Dursley, Angelina Johnson, Viktor Krum, and, yes, the Grey Lady.
Along with these echoes, Ms. Rowling loves paired letters which have much the same effect as re-duplicated sounds except the pairing makes the sound ‘jump’ because of the proximity of the echo to its source. Hannah Abbot, Neville Longbottom, and, most importantly, Harry Potter are instances of this.
These three names with paired letters are unusual, though, in that they don’t also feature either internal echoes or up-front alliteration. Pairings usually come with one or the other of these naming echoes. Enjoy noting both the letter pairings and the internal echoes of these Hogwarts Saga names: Cuthbert Binns, Reginald Cattermole, Dirk Cresswell, Cedric Diggory, Arabella Doreen Figg, and Seamus Finnegan. Perhaps my favorite name in the series is Peter Pettigrew, whose name, in addition to being especially revealing about his character (and funny), simultaneously features alliterative initial consonants, a sound pairing, and internal echoes of ‘p’s, ‘t’s, ‘e’s, and ‘r’s.
HogwartsProfessor readers know Rowling has a thing about names; deciphering her cryptonyms are a fun part of what this site is about. Rowling herself admits her pre-occupation with names:
As I said, I collect names. I’ve always collected names, so I’ve got notebooks full of them, and I like inventing names…. Names are really crucial to me – as some of my characters [have] had eight or nine names before I – I, you know, hit the right one. And for some reason I just can’t move on until I know I’ve called them the right thing – that’s very fundamental to me
Nabokov’s character names are not only alliterative and feature internally mirrored consonants, they are also playfully and profoundly pregnant with meaning. The narrator of Lolita, ‘Humbert Humbert,’ a pseudonym he gives himself, has a name that points to his tragedy. Nabokov has Pale Fire’s poet, John Shade, explain to us (sort of!) that ‘Humbert’ derives from the assonant Spanish words for ‘shadow’ and for ‘man.’ The bad guy of Lolita, our shadow man’s shadow, is named ‘Claire Quilty,’ which is simultaneously alliterative, a pointer to the reality hidden for most of the novel (he is, as Appel notes “clearly guilty”), and a double pointer to Nabokov’s alchemical notes in being androgynous and ‘patchwork’ (checkered).
Rowling tips a hat I think to Quilty, Nabakov’s mysterious bad guy in Lolita, revealed as a baddy to the reader’s surprise (and killed) only in the end, with her Quirinus Quirrell in Philosopher’s Stone. Prof Quirrell has a first and last name that begin ‘Qui -‘ of course, and has both the suggestion of androgyny we see in Claire (the ‘queer’ evident in his cognomen) and the ‘shadow’ issue of that Dark Lord living on the back side of his head.
How about the anagram bit? We know Rowling gives the Dark Lord the birth name of ‘Thomas Marvolo Riddle’ not only because of the meanings of each of those names together and separately (the twin aspect of ‘Thomas’ seems even more important today) but also because the letters could be recombined into ‘I am Lord Voldemort.’ And, yes, one of the questions I would ask Rowling if I ever stood in The Presence — who could sit? — is “Which came first, Tom Riddle or Lord Voldemort, in the naming process?”
Lolita has a character named ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ whose name, like Lord Thingy’s birth name, is an anagram the unscrambling of which reveals the name of the real person pulling strings behind the scenes. And I mean ‘the real person.’ You’ll note that Nabokov’s initials are VVN, so ‘Vivian’ is a natural. Using the leftover letters in Vladimir Nabokov and you get ‘Vivian Darkbloom,’ a writer in Lolita that collaborates with Quilty and eventually writes his biography. (Appel explains that Nabokov inserted himself into the text this way because he had planned to publish the book anonymously and Ms Darkbloom was proof, if he had to establish he’d written it, laced into the story.)
But if you’re skeptical about there being a ‘Big Deal’ connection between Nabokov and Rowling, I understand that. The similarities between how each author names characters and the importance assigned to same could have derived independently from another storyteller and great cryptonym creator both writers admire, namely (ouch), Charles Dickens.
Here’s the thing. The name jollies and the word play both Rowling and Nabokov delight in may be the weakest if the most obvious link between the two. They are just a step above noting the parallels between Buckbeak’s seeming execution but really an escape with the ending of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Fascinating, certainly, but not mind-boggling.
Here are my reasons, after less than a week reading Nabokov, for thinking Rowling’s appreciation of this master’s artistry, his “quality of writing” as she put it, informs everything she writes, that Nabokov may very well be at least as important in this regard as Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, E. Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge, taken together.
First, there is Nabokov’s careful structuring of his novels. I’ll share some charts I’ve made of Lolita in a separate post, and, if you’ve been awake during our discussions of Ring Composition here, you’ll get the Nabokov connection.
How about meaning? Andrea Pitzer argues convincingly in her Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov that Lolita’s primary if obscured message is an attack on anti-Semitism in particular and totalitarianism in general. Rowling’s anti-eugenics and contra Pure Blood fascism theme, the mess of social justice pottage behind everything Harry Potter to include Fantastic Beasts, walks straight out of Lolita and Pale Fire, novels written as Pitzer explains by a writer in exile, one expelled from his homeland by Bolshevik monsters, from Germany and France by the German National Socialists (VVN’s wife was Jewish), and whose gay brother died in a Prussian concentration camp.
There are repeated references to alchemy in both Lolita and Pale Fire. No less an authority than Lyndy Abraham, editor of the definitive Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, has written a journal paper on ‘Nabokov’s Alchemical Pale Fire.‘ Another question on my list of things to ask The Presence, something I’ve wanted to know since the interview in which she said she’d “learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy” became public, is “What spurred your interest in literary alchemy?” I think now that “Nabokov’s artistry” is a probable answer.
A peculiar feature of Rowling’s work, something very unusual in a first time writer (or, get real, any writer), is the quality and quantity of her intratextual writing. ‘Intratextual’ means “self-referencing” here and covers a lot of ground. I’m referring not only to her legendary ‘slow narrative release,’ the ability to tell a larger story over several novels within books that are satisfying integers in themselves, but also to the ‘texts within the text,’ ‘plays within the play’ that she writes. Rowling includes embedded texts that are books — think Riddle’s Diary and the Potions text of the Half-Blood Prince — that are activities — Caitlin Harper has revealed how every Quidditch match is a snapshot image of the action playing out in the book in which it takes place — and that are classroom scenes mirroring in backdrop what is happening in the foreground.
Rowling is brilliant as an intratextual writer. I’d go so far as to say what I have said about her narrative release that she has no contemporary peer in this regard. So where did she learn it?
Intratextual writing, what Appel calls “involution” in his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, is Nabokov’s signature accomplishment and characteristic as a writer. My guess is that when Rowling talks about VNN’s “quality of writing” and her tapping out the “reservoir of superlatives” in her admiration, this interior mirroring and commentary is what she is talking about.
As important, as illuminating, as these Rowling-Nabokov connections are, I think there is one more that is the critical one to take-away, the key I was talking about earlier. The names and word play, the War with Nazis allegory, the literary alchemy, the intratextuality, even the parallelism and mirroring structure of Rowling’s novels which are tools she likely learned to use by reverse engineering Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire, are worthy of lengthy blog posts, even chapters in books about Rowling’s artistry and meaning. They do not change the way we think of what Rowling is writing.
If you think of ‘parody’ as a literate kind of ‘mockery,’ as in MAD Magazine cartoon film parodies, that’s understandable but a mistake. Parodies can mock and make fun of their models (ever read any of the Harry Potter parodies?), exercises in cleverness and, as often as not, jealousy and bitterness. Better parodies simultaneously reflect the qualities of their models in tribute while transforming or subverting them to deliver a different meaning, even a critique of the original’s.
Think of C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy, each one of which books is an exhaustive parody of the literary genre in play. Out of the Silent Planet is a take on H. G. Wells science fiction and turns the original secularist’s form into a vehicle for a traditional Christian cosmology and message. Perelandra? It is Paradise Lost set on Venus with a little H. Rider Haggard mixed in and Lewis certainly corrects Milton’s theological overreach, albeit with hat in hand. That Hideous Strength was known soon after publication as “the greatest Charles Williams novel not written by Charles Williams,” failing to note the only one without the Williams notes Lewis struggled with (co-inherence most clearly).
The Chronicles of Narnia are parodies as well, like the better ones, of a mishmash of genres and literary models. That’s why Lewis could shamelessly lift plot elements from E. Nesbit, stir in a whole lot of George MacDonald, Greek mythology, Arthurian lore, and Christian morality play and come out with the brilliant singularity The Magician’s Nephew.
Parody, oddly enough, is what all better modern and postmodern literature is about. The inability to grasp that an author is intentionally stacking up elements from a given genre not to deliver just one more Gothic romance, Western, or Horatio Alger story but to salute while perhaps subverting that sort of writing is why we misunderstand so much about books we’re reading. Not to mention the idea of “influence.“
Speaking with Writers Digest in February 2000, she listed several authors she admired but added quickly, “But as for being influenced by them… I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don’t analyze my own writing in that way.” In an interview with Amazon.com in 1999, though, she explained that “It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”
What she believes influence is is not especially clear in those comments. That she does not think of it as her being the passive vehicle of a tradition and a slave to any author’s shiboleths, tools, and the beliefs embedded in same, though, is clear. Keep these Rowling notes of discomfort with the accepted idea of how influence works in mind as we get back to parody.
The clues that you are reading a parody of a genre rather another instance of it are exaggeration and missteps. If you’re watching a movie Western and every possible cliche of the story-type is in evidence, with the gold-hearted saloon girl, murderous cattle wrustler, Card sharpie, noble but out-gunned Sheriff, and down on his luck quick draw gunslinger, you may be in a parody. If the stacked elements combine with a bizarre twist on the formula, say, a black Sheriff making references to 20th century television programs or an appearance by a Big Band Orchestra, you know you’re in parody, Mel Brooks land.
Brooks is often called a ‘satirist.’ That’s true insomuch as parody is a type of satire:
The main difference between satire and parody is that satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, while parody is the imitation of the style of a particular author, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.
Back to Rowling and Nabokov.
One of the great mysteries of Rowling through the years has been the pivot she made in interviews from being a great admirer of C. S. Lewis — “He is a genius,” “I cannot be in the same room with a Narnia book without picking it up and reading it,” Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favorite” — in the early going to all but calling him a Death Eater by 2005. What happened?
I think now that Rowling was tired of her readers not getting that she was not a Lewis clone, not a channel through which Enid Blyton was writing another Schoolboy novel, not another Tolkienite trying to best the Master via slavish imitation, and certainly not a “Christian writer” carrying indoctrination freight through story for the church. This bothers her, perhaps, because she is befuddled at how she can be thought of as a good Christian soldier, marching in step with the Inkling platoon, when she is writing parody of their work, not a knock-off imitation in slavish imitation.
Before we go there, let’s eat the low-hanging fruit first: Rowling as a writer parodying Gothic fiction and Schoolboy novels.
The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction comes with a list of elements that suggest a play, poem, or story might be considered ‘Gothic.’ The list has almost thirty plot points, characters, scenery markers, and physical objects on it ranging from “castle” to “Ghosts,” from “found book” to “scar.” The Companion notes if a reader finds several of these thirty Gothic symptoms, the text in question can safely be assumed to be Gothic. Harry Potter has twenty-seven of twenty-nine. That’s called “stacking.”
And are there missteps from the formula? Almost all of the elements Rowling takes from the Gothic back-lot are as absurd and intentionally comic as Brooks’ black Sheriff. Nearly-Headless Nick, the Fat Friar, and the Gothic novella featuring the Gray Lady and the Bloody Baron, just to talk “ghosts” are Gothic camp on the lines of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, not The Mysteries of Udolpho, Wuthering Heights, or Dracula.
Is this mimicry a mockery? It would be, I guess, except that the end of every book delivers a powerful Gothic experience of dread and tension with Harry playing the part of Gothic heroine racing to escape and survive her tormentors, his Dementors more than once. Rowling admires Gothic writing, obviously, and like one of her favorite writers, Jane Austen, did in Northanger Abbey, she loves it enough to parody it for the reader’s amusement (“Look, aren’t these Gothic conventions funny?”) but still using them to deliver the experience this genre can provide.
The same is as true of Schoolboy novel writing tropes, except, in the case of life at Hogwarts, I think the only traditional story element she doesn’t use is “eating a feast with House mates out of bounds after lights out” (see Blyton’s Upper Fourth at Malory Towers for an example of that). Rowling found a discarded screenplay for Tom Brown’s Schooldays, raided the backlot of a movie studio for all the necessary scenery and characters, and threw the lot into her Story Mix Master Blender.
Beloved Headmaster? Check. Hero with sporty best mate and nerdy good friend? Check. Nutty French teacher, sadistic chemistry professor, and beloved groundskeeper? All there. Comic twins, nasty aristocrat dripping of privilege and self-importance as principal enemy, and pathetic companion who needs encouragement and protection from bullies? How about sports? Does school life largely turn on house rivalries acted out on the pitch? Is our hero/ine okay in the classroom but a stand-out athlete? Yep.
And all of these conventions are stood on their head.
First, because it’s a school “of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” French becomes “Divinations,” Chemistry “Potions,” and rugby “Quidditch.” We are a long, long and very humorous way from St Clare’s.
More important for understanding Rowling as parodist is what Dr. Amy Sturgis discusses in her Reason article of late last year, ‘Hogwarts in America.’
The British schooldays story is an inherently political one. The actual British boarding school experience provided training for middle-class bureaucrats in the Age of Empire. As scholar James Gunn points out in his essay “Harry Potter as Schooldays Novel,” readers had need of both therapy and rationalization for this system: “By condemning young boys to spend their childhoods among strangers, the system better prepared them to serve the Empire for decades in foreign climes.…Those for whom the process succeeded went abroad in service to the Empire, married late (if at all), and sent their children back to England at an early age to undergo the same experience.” The schooldays story provided a reassuring blueprint for success in this system while reinforcing the values (both overt and unexamined) supporting it.
One of Rowling’s strokes of subversive genius in the original Harry Potter works, then, was to employ a storytelling model that had enabled the British Empire in order to relate a saga that is vehemently anti-imperial. Harry ultimately triumphs over the most obvious would-be monarch seeking to expand his realm, Lord Voldemort, but in every tale Rowling critiques the ongoing prejudice, ignorance, and greed that leads one group to impose its authority on another, often projecting British and European history backward into her fictive universe in order to drive the point home.
Her stories depict the plight of the half-bloods under pure-blood domination; the second-class citizenship endured by magical creatures such as werewolves and goblins, not to mention the servitude of house-elves, under a system maintained by the Ministry of Magic; and even the forced removal and near genocide suffered by the giants at the hands of witches and wizards. Again and again, Rowling’s work argues for tolerance and mutual respect, self-determination and autonomy, empowerment and freedom.
Rowling subverts the “imperial virtues” delivered in every Schoolboy story, the stiff-upper lip selflessness and cultural hegemony of colonizing Britain, to tell stories that include their celebrations of courage and sacrifice, yes, but the anti-colonialist messages of diversity, individualism, and tolerance as well. This is parody at its subversive finest in terms of stacking, intentional misstepping, all to advance a re-invention of the story type.
Enter C. S. Lewis. Rowling parodies the Christian content of the Narniad by finding room for almost every symbol of Christ in the Survey of English Literature storage room: Phoenix, Red Lion, Unicorn, Philosopher’s Stone, Griffin, Stag, Centaur… all we’re missing is a Pelican for the full menagerie. One of the great ironies of the Potter Panic is that the Holy Harry Haters as a rule missed or misinterpreted the traditional symbolism from their own faith — and it was there in such quantity that it qualifies as parody. Rowling parodies Lewis the way T. H. White parodies L’Morte d’Artur in The Once and Future King (Sword in the Stone) — and the way Lewis parodies E. Nesbit, George MacDonald, Malory and fairy tales. Which is to say “less subversive than re-adapted” parody, more along the lines of her Gothic efforts than her turning Tom Brown upside down.
She is neither mocking nor subverting Christian fantasy in the Hogwarts Saga, in other words, if she is holding up the genre tokens for the careful reader to note and nod appreciatively. When Harry has his annual resurrection experience “miles beneath Hogwarts” in the presence of a symbol of Christ consequent to our hero’s sacrificial love, then, we do not have less of a cathartic elision with Harry and the event, one we might resent if not clued in previously, but a more satisfying one. Rowling’s tour de force finish in Deathly Hallows contra empiricist epistemology with Harry’s victory over doubt via his faith commitment remains a remarkably Christian allegory and imaginative experience.
She gets her role model in parody from Nabokov. My guess is her VVN epiphany and initiation into the world of parody happened after she wrote Casual Vacancy, a novel that has the hallmarks of a beginner’s first effort, probably one of the two books she has said she wrote before Harry Potter (let’s hope this year’s extra book is not the other one if it’s a second Vacancy).
Search the critical literature online and the bibliography at the back of Ravenclaw Reader. You’ll find more discussion on the merits of parodies written about Harry Potter than Rowling as writer of parody. I expect that soon this much neglected and important idea, forehead-slapping obvious once grasped, will be as commonplace in the critical community as the Christian content of the books now is.
That inability to recognize a writer of parody is not true of Nabokov’s readers and critics. There were books written about his parody while he was still alive. Alfred Appel, Jr., our most helpful annotator, has written an important essay ‘Lolita: The Springboard of Parody,’ that, though written in 1967, remains a stepping off place for those beginning Nabokov studies.
More to the point, Vladimir Nabokov has his narrators and characters talk about parody in the books they are in. See chapter 27 in Part 1 of Lolita and listen to Humbert Humbert walk down the Enchanted Hunter hotel hallway. “Parody of a hotel corridor. Parody of silence and death.” Appel’s notes to Lolita refer again and again to the literary genres the master is sending up and reconfiguring to his ends: Dostoevsky pathetic murderer, Doppelganger stories, detective fiction, pulp romance bordering on pornography, and VVN’s constant, fairy tales.
You don’t need to have studied Postmodern Literary Theory in graduate school or even have a guide as good as Appel when reading Pale Fire to see the fairy tales, yes, but also a stacking of features from Robert Frost poetry, academic annotations to popular work, The Prisoner of Zenda and Robert Louis Stevenson novels, undependable narrator stories, and alchemical drama. Professor Josh Richards, a friend from St Andrews now in Arkansas, told me last weekend that he thinks Pale Fire the superior work (he’s teaching it at the college where he lives and works as I write this up). It is an experience like no other.
This introduction to Nabokov as Master and Rowling as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is over long already. My next post will include the charts of Lolita’s structure so you can see the mirroring structure and I can attempt an explanation of the synthesis of VVN’s parodies, story structure, symbolism, and literary alchemy (and the names twinning!). For now, this summary and foretaste:
Rowling is a great admirer of “the quality of writing” found in the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Reading his Lolita and Pale Fire, the student of Rowling’s novels finds an abundance of evidence that she not only admires this writing but also does all she can to imitate it. Nabokov’s alliterative names and cryptonyms to include anagrams, his anti-totalitarian message and political morality, the literary alchemy of character and reader transformation, the intratextual texts within texts and internal mirrors, and what he have been calling ‘ring composition’ all but define or “set the parameters” of Rowling’s artistry and meaning.
Most important, though, Nabokov is a writer of parody — and so is his disciple. Rowling’s masterful subversion of the Schoolboy story genre, her deployment of all the elements of Gothic (good both for laughs and dread-full terror), and her use of fairy tale and Christian high fantasy story tropes (and detective fiction, alchemical drama, hero’s journey, Arthurian romance, etc.) are all her own but all derived as well from Nabokov’s similar adoring-but-redefining parodies of other genres that never descend to mere mockery and mimicry of the originals.
Rowling is a satirist in interludes, in spots, but she is a parodist beginning to end. Understanding this is a great help for understanding, interpreting, and appreciating her genius and the accomplishment of the Hogwarts Saga.
The foretaste? Alfred Appel, Jr., writes that the aim of Nabokov’s Lolita specifically and of his work in general is “the transcendence of solipsism,” i.e., escaping an identity no greater than one’s ego or reflection of self in the world mirror. In my next post, I’ll try after laying out the story scaffolding of Lolita, to talk about how Rowling shares this end, how the structural mirroring is an aspect of this message, and how Rowling in her way stacks so many Nabokov signatures into her work that we must consider the possibility that she is writing a parody of the parodist as well.
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